Friday, October 19, 2012

Musings on SVP

Imagine, for a moment, that you once studied an obscure language for many, many years. You studied this language to the point of near fluency, but then were suddenly cut off from anyone who spoke it. You adjusted. You went back to speaking the language spoken natively in your country. Years later, however, you were kidnapped and dropped off in a nation where the primary language just so happened to be the one oddball one you'd studied previously. It all comes crashing back to you in a way you didn't realize your brain could even manage.

This is what the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting has been like for me.

© 2012 The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

I left the world of academic paleontology three years ago with a Masters instead of a PhD. And when I sat down Tuesday to listen to the first paleontological conference talk of the mind was blown. Not just by the talk...but by what I understood from the talk. I had completely forgotten that I knew all those words! Paleo geek-speak is like another language--a language I had forgotten I'd ever known in the first place.

And beyond merely exercising a vocabulary that's been collecting dust in my brain, this week I've gotten the rare chance to witness what my life would have been if I hadn't left grad school. Two roads diverged, and I chose the road less traveled, but what would've become of me if I hadn't? Now I think I know.

I would've been here. Just as I am now. At this conference.

Except I would've been presenting research. I would have new results on Miocene ape locomotion, using new fossils that hadn't been discovered when I left grad school three years ago. I would've been using new analytical methods, like geo-morphometrics (an increasingly popular method I've seen and semi-drooled over during several talks this week). I would've swarmed the tables of free reprints, snatching up all ape-related journal articles like someone was handing out cash.

Oh wait. I just did that last one. Old habits are hard to break?

Ahem. Anyhow. In a lot of ways, I've gotten a glimpse at what PhD-me would've been like this week. It's...weird, to say the least. But in other ways, it's also helping me to bring closure to that horrifically difficult decision I made three years ago.

I made the right decision. I've known that this entire time, but being back in the academia environment confirms it. I love paleontology. I've loved this week. I've geeked out over pretty much every talk I've been at (and believe me, I've been at a lot...there are twenty four possible talks to see each day if you time things right). And while I've enjoyed being back and catching up on all the newest research...I have had zero wishes or desires to contribute to the research.

And that's why I know I made the right choice.

I love learning about prehistoric life and evolution. I love teaching about it. I love writing about it. I love introducing others to it.

But I do not love tearing my hair out as my statistical analyses all contradict one another, having professors breathe down my neck about my data collection methods, or finding out my dig site has been closed due to overseas rioting, therefore putting research on hold. None of that is any fun. And to me, publishing my very own research was just not worth any of that stress.

This isn't to say I didn't like my research. I did. And at times, I miss it. Just not badly enough to make a lifetime career out of it. If you're going to get a PhD, you must love what you're doing enough to put aside all other interests. I couldn't do that. I like too many different things. And what I love wasn't research at all...

...It was teaching. And so here I am. Three years later, back at SVP. This time, as a representative from my museum instead of as a grad student. It's been an identity-crisis kind of week. I know I'm here from my museum where I work a professional full-time job, but I keep reverting back to "grad school" me. (Case in point: I seriously do have a stack of reprints on my hotel desk right now that I scavenged from the freebie table. Am I ever going to use these? No. Could I resist grabbing them in a race against other students? No. "Grad school" me is kind of a scary person.)

So I guess the moral of all this is that while it's been nice to visit, I'm glad I no longer live in the world of academic paleontology. Science education and communication is where I belong. It's where I'm happy, comfortable, and productive. I'm glad I've retained the skills needed to survive a week of paleontological discussions (you gotta log-correct your data for those principal components analyses if you're going to rule out body mass in your efforts to demonstrate axial skeletal morphological variation, or you'll never resolve that paraphyletic tree...and then how would you even begin sorting out how much vertebral loading changes anterior-posteriorly throughout ontogeny within each clade?). It's nice to be able to keep up with what's being said in the talks. So for the ability to do that, I thank you, grad school.

And I tip my hat to the new generation of grad students, and especially to doctoral candidate Ashley Hammond of the University of Missouri. She's working on a lot of the things I was hoping to work on in my own PhD pursuits. She gave a fantastic talk this week on suspensory adaptations in Miocene apes, using measurements of hip abduction from living taxa. I now feel I can retire from the world of paleontological research without guilt. She's got this Miocene ape locomotion stuff covered (and, dare I say, much more impressively than I likely would've managed).

Stay tuned for SVP highlights (read: cool new paleo discoveries!) to be posted in a few days.

1 comment:

  1. I glossed over that foreign language you threw in there in the third to last paragraph. I've ALWAYS hated research... and I am glad there are people out there who love it, share it and let me TEACH about it!